A comparably capacious embrace of beauty and pleasure - an embrace that somehow extends to death as well as life, to dissolution as well as creation - characterizes Montaigne's restless reflections on matter in motion, Cervantes's chronicle of his mad knight, Michelangelo's depiction of flayed skin, Leonardo's sketches of whirlpools, Caravaggio's loving attention to the dirty soles of Christ's feet.
There was a time in the ancient world - a very long time - in which the central cultural problem must have seemed an inexhaustible outpouring of books. Where to put them all? How to organize them on the groaning shelves? How to hold the profusion of knowledge in one's head? The loss of this plenitude would have been virtually inconceivable to anyone living in its midst. Then, not all at once but with the cumulative force of a mass extinction, the whole enterprise came to an end. What looked stable turned out to be fragile, and what had seemed for all time was only for the time being.
The quintessential emblem of religion ? and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies at its core ? is the sacrifice of a child by a parent.Almost all religious faiths incorporate the myth of such a sacrifice, and some have actually made it real. Lucretius had in mind the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon, but he may also have been aware of the Jewish story of Abraham and Isaac and other comparable Near Eastern stories for which the Romans of his times had a growing taste. Writing around 50 BCE he could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it or by the endlessly reiterated, prominently displayed images of the bloody, murdered son.